On Wednesday, March 26, the Foreign Affairs Symposium (FAS) hosted philosopher, political commentator and activist Cornel West in Shriver Hall.
West, who has taught at Union Theological Seminary, Yale, Harvard and the University of Paris, is currently a professor at Princeton. He has authored over 19 books, has appeared on the Colbert Report, CNN, and other TV shows, has produced three albums and has been in over 25 films and documentaries.
This spring, the Symposium’s theme is “Confronting Global Dissonance: The Balance Between Realism and Idealism.” This theme is based off of the work of Anne Smedinghoff, a 2009 Hopkins graduate who was killed in Afghanistan while transporting books to schoolchildren. This year’s FAS was dedicated to Smedinghoff.
At the start of the event, FAS Co-Executive Director Nikhil Gupta announced the Anne Smedinghoff Memorial Event, which will recognize one leader in international development and diplomacy each April. This year, the FAS staff and Smedinghoff’s family chose Shabana Basij-Rasikh. Basij-Rasikh, who co-founded the School of Leadership Afghanistan, will be coming to speak at Hopkins on April 11.
West began Wednesday’s speech by quoting W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois had once posed four questions about how integrity, honesty, decency and virtue would be able to face oppression, deception, insult and brute force. West structured his speech around these questions and spoke about the importance of having these personality traits in one’s daily life.
Throughout his speech, West discussed the ideas of realism, idealism and dissonance, connecting them to various anecdotes and quotes. West’s speech was critical at times, as he talked about national and global issues.
“When we talk about realism and idealism ... there is no realism that doesn’t presuppose in some sense some values [and] some ideals,” West said. “The question is going to be ... what choices will we make in confronting the massive social misery in the world in which we live?”
West quoted many philosophers, historians and civil rights leaders, including Socrates, Plato, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dostoyevsky. At various points, the audience clapped in agreement.
West also expressed some of his political views. He said that many politicians allow injustice to continue and that the U.S. government is not spending enough money on improving education, wages and healthcare. West called the U.S. a “hegemonic empire” and said that the three dominant tendencies on a global scale are financializing, privatizing and militarizing.
“Those who have the money and the power determine what reality is,” West said. “Democracy is the attempt to curtail the arbitrary use of power ... This country [is] both [a] fragile experiment in democracy and [an] imperial adventure.”
West also talked a lot about personality traits, saying that young people needed to be honest, courageous, virtuous and nonconformist. According to West, students should engage in Socratic questioning.
“University sites these days tend not to put a premium on courage ... because it doesn’t translate ... into wealth, status and position,” West said. “We’re losing access to a tradition that focuses on wisdom, not smartness ... Just to attempt to hold onto your integrity will make you look like a subversive, a revolutionary.”
West concluded on the note that indifference is growing and memories of past injustices are fading. He described how, if one generation fails in its efforts, the next generation will try again to achieve these goals, unless this young generation is indifferent.
Around 800 to 900 people came to Shriver to hear West speak. The talk was followed by a question and answer period, in which attendees asked West about a wide range of topics. After the event, the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) sponsored a reception in the lobby of Shriver with catering from Bon Appétit and opportunities for students to meet West.
“At the end of the day, the symposium’s all about encouraging dialogue and discourse,” Gupta said. “It’s an opportunity for the audience to reflect and challenge the views of the speaker.”
Earlier this year, FAS’s Programming Committee sent out invitations to many potential speakers, with the goal of getting a balance of viewpoints. While FAS members often communicate with speakers’ assistants and schedulers, West directly spoke to the FAS staff.
“He has been a really engaging partner to work with and has been extremely personal in his outreach,” Gupta said.
FAS live-streamed its events to the SAIS campus, and 15 SAIS students came to the Homewood campus to hear West’s talk in person. Other attendees came from D.C. and Pennsylvania to hear West speak. FAS members publicized the series by handing out cards on the Breezeway and emailing neighborhood listservs. So far, Gupta and FAS Co-Executive Director Rosie Grant have expressed satisfaction in the turnout and quality of events this season.
“Overall, the feedback we’ve received has been pretty positive,” Grant said. “People have been enjoying the content of the events.”